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Last February Movies Post

In this post I review 6 new films including a Canadian feature as among the best.
The Traitor (Italy/France/Germany/Brazil 2019
Veteran Italian director and co-writer Marco Bellochio’s sprawling crime drama is based on the actual life of Tommaso Buscetta (strikingly played by Pierfranceso Favino), a key member of the Sicilian “Costa Nostra”, who had moved his family to Brazil when several sons were murdered by rivals (during the internecine mob wars over control of the heroin trade an on-screen body count clicks past 150).  The flamboyant Buscetta, no stranger to killing, became known as “the boss of the two worlds”.  But after being arrested and tortured—there’s an especially harrowing scene where his wife’s life is threatened—he was extradited back to Italy where in the 1980s he became a protected key witness in a famous series of anti-mafia trials, although he continued to regard himself as a “man of honour” not an “informant”.  Buscetta forged a special relationship with prosecuting judge Giovani Falconi (Fausto Russo Alesi) who was later blown up in a spectacular mafia hit.  The unruly courtroom scenes, with dozens of caged defendants shouting abuse, are something to behold. Indeed the production design throughout is first rate.  Buscetta survived to join his family in witness protection in several small towns in the U.S.  Bellochio brings a notorious chapter to life in vivid detail. A-
Mafia Inc. (Canada/Quebec 2020
Directed with great style and verve by Quebec filmmaker Daniel Grou Podz, from a screenplay by Sylvain Guy adapting the eponymous book by André Cédilot and André Noël, this Montreal-based organized crime thriller is one of the best Canadian movies I’ve seen in years. At the centre is the family of Sicilian-born godfather Frank Paterno (Sergio Castellito).  He negotiates shares of the lucrative drug trade with other criminal elements.  He schemes with associates across borders for a piece of a major proposed infrastructure project—a bridge linking the Italian mainland with Sicily.  An intense rivalry develops between Frank’s son “Giaco” and “Vince” Gamache (Marc-Andre Grodin), the son of Frank’s master tailor Henri (Gilbert Sicotte).  A middle-section backstory circa 1980 explains how the young Vince, rejecting his father, had become close to Giaco and Frank, then was initiated into the murderous ways of the underworld.  The problem is that Vince has turned into a homicidal hothead (an especially disturbing drug trafficking play involves the “accidental” deaths of schoolboys in Venezuela).   When he goes too far and is deemed a liability, he’s beaten half to death.  That of course sets off another cycle of violence as a hit is put on Giaco (Donny Falsetti) which also endangers Vince’s sister Sofie (Mylène Mackay), and she’s engaged to another of Frank’s sons Patrizio (Michael Ricci). By this time we have already witnessed several scenes of gruesome lethal violence.  And this personal connection is just one thread among richly detailed angles that involve inter alia: complex money laundering networks being investigated by the RCMP, with multiple arrests and attempted prosecutions; gangland deals carving up territory; extortion and payback with extreme prejudice.  Moving on, we follow a battered psychopathic Vince, partially recovered, into a spectacular explosion and shootout.  But that’s not even the ultimate mortal twist. A last scene of siblings at a father’s graveside puts a savage exclamation point on these proceedings.  Overall, the movie benefits from both top-notch production design and excellent performances (with dialogue is in English, French, Italian, and Spanish).  Highly recommended. A   
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (France 2019
This luminous drama from writer-director Céline Sciamma won best screenplay as well as the “queer palm” at the 2019 Cannes film festival. Set in pre-revolutionary 18th century France, it opens with young girls learning to draw when the appearance of their female teacher’s portrait of the title—depicting a scene from a nocturnal gathering of women singing around a bonfire—rekindles a private pain.  She’s the painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant), next shown wading ashore in coastal Brittany to take up a commission from a countess of Milanese background who knew her painter father. The chatelaine needs a portrait of her daughter Héloise (Adèle Haenal) who has come from a sheltered education in a convent.  The purpose is a marriage arrangement with a Milanese suitor who had been the intended husband of another daughter, deceased (the cause merely whispered).  The mother is trying again since a previous attempt failed when Héloise refused to pose.  Marianne is therefore presented as a companion only—she must capture her elusive subject’s likeness on canvas through surreptitious observation.  Below that surface something deeper smolders. Deliberately defacing the first completed portrait as not good enough, Marianne is able to prolong her stay while the mother departs for a few days.  In this household of women the other significant figure is a young maid Sophie facing the misfortune of pregnancy, a narrative element adding to the sense of feminine complicity even as the camera’s focus stays intently on Marianne and Héloise.  Rarely if ever has the female gaze been rendered with more exquisite sensitivity on screen, moving from shy sidelong glances to a post-confessional erotic flame of passionate embrace.  The lovers exchange souvenirs, knowing this is a fleeting moment before the separation a male-dominated society will impose (with metaphoric allusion to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice). Their eyes need not meet each other again for the last image, a haunting upwelling close-up, to suggest a spark that cannot be extinguished.  A+  (Watch a Toronto film festival conversation with the director and principal actors:
This stirring documentary directed by Robert Greene recalls tragic events from July 1917, as commemorated in a 2017 centennial re-creation—events which convulsed the copper-mining town of Bisbee, Arizona situated near the Mexican border and close to the historic “Wild West” town of Tombstone.  Bisbee was the site of a huge copper mine when a strike was called by the I.W.W., the Industrial Workers of the World, the radical “One Big Union” (nicknamed the “Wobblies”) that represented the miners, 90% of whom were foreign-born, making them a target for ethnic prejudice as well as anti-Communist hysteria (this was the year of the Bolshevik revolution) and allegations of sabotaging of the war effort.    Bisbee was a company town and to break the strike several thousand scabs and residents were deputized to round up at gunpoint some 1,300 striking miners and their supporters who were forced into railcars and in an infamous deportation sent to the desert of New Mexico, even threated with death if they were to return to the town.  It created deep and lingering divisions with families that are explored through Green’s multi-layered approach that delves into personal histories, the centennial preparations, and the experience of a young Mexican-American Fernando Serrano who will act the part of one of the miners. If the narrative sometimes drags a bit, it grabs hold in the final chapter six showing the re-enactment of the violent roundup and deportation.  With the power structure of capital and state so manifestly exposed, the screen comes alive as more than a dry lesson in long-ago labour history.  A-   (For more historical details see:
Midnight Traveler (Qatar/UK/Canada/U.S.
This remarkable documentary by Afghan filmmaker Hassan Fazili was shot entirely on three mobile phones.  (Awarded a special jury prize at the 2019 Sundance film festival among other distinctions, it has a 100% score on the “rotten tomatoes” rating site.)  Fazili with wife and producing partner Fatima Hussaini records how the family of four—they have two little girls Zahra and Nargis—makes a dangerous journey to safety.  Fazili observes that he comes from a long line of mullahs, and has five brothers who are mullahs.  But he took a different path that aroused the ire of religious conservatives.  The couple ran an Art Café in Kabul until forced to close.  In 2015, warned of a Taliban death sentence, the family was first displaced to Tajikistan.  But when their asylum claim was rejected they returned to Afghanistan before embarking on a perilous 6,000 km “illegal” transit to Europe as so many other refugees.  
The film begins with a little girl’s voice rejecting Jean-Paul Sartre’s infamous aphorism “L’enfer, c’est les autres” (“Hell is other people”), proposing instead: “The road of life winds through hell.  Hell is within me.  This is a journey to the edge of hell.” The family flees along human exodus routes through Iran and Turkey to Bulgaria where they spend many weeks in a camp for migrants (who are assaulted by far-right nationalists with police complicity). The next destination is Serbia where they are stuck for some 16 months until making it on a list to Hungary where they are confined to a transit zone for 3 months.  It’s almost 600 days since leaving their homeland and in a montage of moments Fazili wonders if their dreams will become a mirage.    This is the rawest and truest form of cinema verité that illuminates a condition faced by millions forced to leave home and country behind.  A+  (The Fazili family is currently in Germany. Read more at:
With “Brexit” putting the future of Northern Ireland in question, this Northern Ireland production observes a longstanding marriage that is tested but survives a devastating cancer.   Joan (Lesley Manville) and husband Tom (Liam Neeson) have known grief, losing a daughter Debbie.  After a series of tests Joan learns she has breast cancer.  Although surgery removes the cancerous growth, which has not metastasized, precaution dictates a course of chemotherapy followed by a radical mastectomy. It’s a terrible ordeal experienced by many thousands of women, depicted here with realism and sensitivity. Strains sometimes erupt in the couple’s relationship but they manage to maintain intimacy as well as steady support.  This is essentially a two-hander, apart from the narrative addition of a sympathetic hospital encounter with a mixed-race gay couple Peter (David Wilmot) and Steve (Amit Shah). Peter, who has terminal cancer, is being treated in the same hospital when Joan recognizes him as having been the daughter’s teacher.  Co-directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn probe the burdens of pain and loss without raising the emotional temperature into tragic illness movie-of-the-week melodrama, a restraint that serves the material well.  B+   


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April 24, 2019 was the official launch of The Best of Screenings and Meanings: A Journey Through Film at McNally Robinson Booksellers in Saskatoon, SK